Welcome to my blog!

News from a wargamer with a special interest in the military history of the Balkans. It mainly covers my current reading and wargaming projects. For more detail you can visit the web sites I edit - Balkan Military History and Glasgow & District Wargaming Society. Or follow me on Twitter @Balkan_Dave
or on Mastodon @balkandave@mastodon.scot, or Threads @davewatson1683

Saturday 20 April 2024

Montrose - The Captain General

 This is the second book in Nigel Tranter's version of the Montrose story. It covers his later victories in the civil wars, including Kilsyth. Then, the defeat at Philipaugh, followed by exile and the final ill-fated campaign that led to the scaffold in Edinburgh.

As with the first book, Tranter has not overly focused on the well-known Civil War campaign. He devotes considerable space to Montrose's travels across Europe, seeking to build support for the Royalist cause. Then, the less well-known final campaign, when he landed with a core of mercenaries on Orkney and invaded the mainland. Charles II had made the fatal mistake of entering into negotiations with the Covenanter leadership, which ultimately undermined Montrose, as none of the clans would risk all on a doomed cause. Heavily outnumbered, his small force was destroyed at Carbisdale. 

The final section of the book covers his short captivity in Edinburgh and subsequent execution. This is a pretty tragic read, dealing with the sad end of a loyal servant of the Crown who had the misfortune to serve two incompetent Stewart monarchs. His reputation was recovered at the Restoration, with his arch-enemy, Archibald Campbell, taking his place in Edinburgh jail.

I have concurrently been reading Edward Cowan's biography of Montrose. Tranter has kept close to the history, and Cowan also devotes more space to Montrose's early life and later travels. Montrose had a stellar reputation as a soldier across Europe and could have commanded at least one of the major armies on the continent. He should have done!

I have several books on the classic Montrose campaigns but not a full biography. This is excellent and has broadened my knowledge and admiration for this remarkable historical figure.

My 15mm Montrose army is now finished, and I have been playing games of For King and Parliament using the new supplements.

Thursday 11 April 2024

The Pakistan Navy

 I have reached the last stage of my research into HMS Ambuscade for the book that should be out this summer. My summary of the ships is on the Clyde Naval Heritage website, which plans to bring the Type 21 frigate back to the Clyde. The book's final section covers the period when Ambuscade was sold to Pakistan in 1993 and renamed PNS Tariq. This name comes from Tariq bin Ziyad, the commander who led the Umayyad conquest of Visigothic Spain in 711–718 A.D.

I have read and reviewed several books on the Indo-Pakistan conflicts, but these include very little about the Pakistan Navy. There were very few naval operations in the 1965 war, more in 1971. Files in the National Archives gave me the sale details and a few journal articles helped. Commodore Ranjit Rai's book Warring Navies: India and Pakistan is pretty good on naval operations, although the focus is on the Indian Navy and lacks complete objectivity.

There is a very entertaining book of Pakistan Navy naval anecdotes written by Rear Admiral Mian Zahir Shah, Bubbles of Water. I was greatly helped because the first commander of PNS Tariq, Captain Muhammad Anwar, wrote his memoirs. He is also a Trustee of Clyde Naval Heritage and generously gave me some of his time. I usually write about long-dead people, so interviewing a veteran was an honour and a new experience. The book is an excellent read, covering his extensive naval service and also, sadly, how he became the victim of internal navy politics.

The Pakistan Navy inherited a small number of ships at Partition, supplemented in the early years by former Royal Navy warships. As Britain withdrew from the East, the USA became the primary provider of vessels. The French supplied four Daphne-class submarines, later augmented by two Agosta-class submarines. They also provided the Dassault Mirage 5 and the maritime variant of the Exocet missile. 

In 1986, the Pakistan Navy expressed an interest in buying new Type 21 frigates from Britain. This came to nothing, but the discussions were reopened in 1992 when the Pakistan Navy sought replacements for their eight leased US frigates. The US refused to extend the lease because the Pakistani government was unwilling to sign up to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. They went on to buy all six remaining Type 21 frigates, including HMS Ambuscade, which were scheduled for decommissioning by the Royal Navy. 

The naval base in Karachi refitted the ships, and PNS Tariq became the squadron's flagship. She served in the Gulf and the Mediterranean and was deployed on a search-and-rescue mission to the Maldives, where she rescued 377 tourists. PNS Tariq was decommissioned on 5 August 2023 after 30 years of service.

For wargaming purposes, I have plans to expand my land forces to the sea and land battles of the Indo-Pakistan wars. Just too many projects and not enough time at present.

Clyde Naval Heritage has launched its fundraising campaign to bring PNS Tariq back to the Clyde. You can support the project in various ways. Details are on this webpage.

Friday 5 April 2024

The Faded Map

 My library pick this month was Alistair Moffat's look at the lost kingdoms of Scotland during the late Roman, Dark Ages, and early medieval periods. They are 'lost' because we know very little about them. What we do know is based on a handful of unreliable written sources and archaeology. 

The problem with writing about lost kingdoms is that without sources, you either have to give extensive context or speculate extensively. Moffat mainly goes for the former. This book was written in 2010, and there have been some developments since then. The History Hit podcast 'Gone Medieval' recently covered these.

The main lost kingdom in the east of Scotland is Bernicia. The Kingdom of Bernicia emerged in the early 6th century in the region that roughly corresponds to present-day Northumberland and County Durham in England. Moffat argues that it also covered much of lowland Scotland and for a period further north. Bernicia's history is closely intertwined with that of its southern neighbour, the Kingdom of Deira. Together, they formed the powerful kingdom of Northumbria when they were united in the late 7th century. 

One of the most notable rulers of Bernicia was King Æthelfrith, who reigned from around 593 to 616. Æthelfrith was known for his military prowess and expansionist policies. He was responsible for defeating the British kingdom of Gododdin at the Battle of Degsastan in 603 and the subsequent annexation of the region known as the Old North. After the death of Æthelfrith, Bernicia was briefly ruled by Edwin of Deira (killed at the Battle of Hatfield Chase 633) but later reverted to independent rule under Æthelfrith's sons. Eventually, the kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira were united under King Oswiu in 654, forming the Kingdom of Northumbria. Bernicia's influence continued throughout the Northumbrian period, which lasted until the Viking invasions of the 9th century.

In the west, Strathclyde existed as an independent kingdom for several centuries, coexisting alongside Northumbria, Dalriada and Rheged. During its height, Strathclyde played a significant role in the politics and warfare of northern Britain. It was often a buffer state between the expanding kingdoms of the Angles and the Scots, and its kings were involved in conflicts with both. However, with the rise of the Kingdom of Scotland under Kenneth MacAlpin and his successors, Strathclyde gradually came under increasing pressure. By the 11th century, it had effectively been absorbed into Scotland, although remnants of its distinct culture and identity persisted for some time. Tim Clarkson's 'Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age' covers this later period well.

The benefit of this study is that it's focused on the lost kingdoms of Scotland. The problem is that just narrows down what we don't know. New archaeological findings certainly help, but the absence of historical sources will always limit our understanding of this period. Still, it gives free rein to excellent historical fiction writers like Matthew Harffy!

One of my 28mm Saxon command stands

Wednesday 3 April 2024

Lord Byron and Newstead Abbey

 On my way to the football yesterday, I visited Lord Byron's home at Newstead Abbey, just north of the city. It is a fine site with extensive gardens, and while Byron was forced to sell the property, the focus of the exhibits within the house itself is understandably on its most famous resident. 

Byron is most famous as a romantic poet, but my primary interest is his role during the Greek War of Independence and his earlier visit to the Balkans. This included his meeting with Ali Pasha, which provided a valuable primary source I used in my bookThe Frontier Sea.

In 1823, Byron travelled to Greece to offer his support. He used his funds to finance the Greek cause and became involved in the conflict. He arrived in Greece in 1824 and settled in the town of Missolonghi, which was a centre of the Greek resistance. Byron contributed not only financially but also personally to the cause. He organised funds, supplies, and medical aid for the Greek forces. He even formed his own military unit, which he equipped and trained at his own expense. Despite his lack of military experience, Byron was determined to fight alongside the Greeks. However, his efforts were cut short when he fell ill with a fever and died on April 19, 1824, at the age of 36.

His Balkan connections are reflected in a few exhibits in the house. 

This is the helmet he had designed for the conflict and was laid on his coffin.

The military jacket worn by Byron in Greece.

This helmet was made for Byron's friend Count Pietro Gamba. The legend on the plate features 'Hellas' in Greek characters.

The house itself is worth a visit. There are plenty of portraits.

Byron's library

His bedroom, which saw plenty of 'action' with both sexes.

His study

Even if the house doesn't interest you, the grounds alone make a pleasant afternoon walk. 

Monday 1 April 2024

Royal Lancers Museum

Today's visits included another of those wonderful small regimental museums that we should nurture—along with the volunteers who keep them going. Today's was the Royal Lancers Museum in Nottinghamshire, near Sherwood Forest. It's in what I assume used to be the stables of the nearby Hall, now a hotel. There is also a nice cafe (fantastic Bakewell tart) and a few shops.

That's a Conqueror heavy tank outside.

They also have a Ferret armoured car. These exhibits reflect the cavalry regiments covered by the museum, which dates back to the 16th and 17th Light Dragoons. Although the first unit was raised by the owner of the Hall during the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion, the Kingston Light Horse.

You have to see the Tarleton helmet to appreciate how cumbersome it must have been to wear it.

The regiments mainly consisted of light cavalry that converted to lance in the 19th century. They fought in most of the colonial conflicts.

Zulu Wars

Boer War

Sudan. This was recaptured at Omdurman.

The two world wars and beyond are also covered. One of the regiments is the Sherwood Rangers, the subject of James Holland's book Band of Brothers. They make good use of model kits and dioramas.

This is only a small museum, but it's worth a look if you are in the area.

On my way back to the hotel, I stopped off at Conisborough Castle. It is the best-preserved 12th-century keep in England. The views are worth the climb up the stairs, although someone did ask me if there was a lift!

Yorkshire Air Museum

With a couple of days to spare between football matches, I have been visiting some museums. I have been to the Yorkshire Air Museum before, but as I haven't got a blog post, it must have been longer than I thought.

The museum is outside York on the old RAF Elvington airfield, home to Bomber Command in WW2. Mainly French and Canadian crews who are remembered in memorials and exhibits. The RAF huts contain a wide range of RAF and wartime exhibits, and they are well laid out and described. When we think of the RAF, the focus is on pilots. However, there is a room dedicated to gunners who had a staggering casualty rate during WW2. Of over 55,000 air gunners in Bomber Command, 22,000 were killed.

Most folk come for the aircraft, and they have an excellent collection in two hangers and many more outside. Here are a few of them.

The giant beast is the Victor, although their Nimrod comes close. An ugly design was first used as a nuclear bomber but then converted to a tanker. It played an essential role in the Falklands War.

I counted three Buccaneers.

I have just finished writing about the Falklands War for my latest book, so I was drawn to the Harrier GR3. This was the RAF version that supplemented the Fleet Air Arm version in that conflict.

The Halifax Bomber was used by the Free French.

And bringing us up to date, bomber wise, the Tornado.

And finally, a well-preserved Hawker Hunter. Last flown by the Qatar Air Force

A very well laid out museum and well worth a visit.

Friday 29 March 2024

Soviet Cruisers 1917-45

My current research focus is on naval matters, so Alexander Hill's new Osprey, Soviet Cruisers 1917-45, was an easy choice from this month's pick of Osprey books.

The Russian Navy was never really a Blue Sea fleet, with the traditional role for cruisers involving the attack and defence of maritime communications on the high seas and scouting for a fleet. After the revolution, there was an internal debate about the role of cruisers between Stalin's vision for power projection and the immediate need for coastal protection. Plans for heavier cruisers had to be shelved in the face of competing claims on resources, and even after World War II, the Soviet Union would continue to build essentially light gun-armed cruisers. In WW2, the Soviet cruisers of the Black Sea Fleet saw very active wartime service, conducting shore bombardment and carrying men and equipment into besieged ports.

The meat of this book is split into two. The cruisers laid down in the Tsarist period and those developed after 1917. 

The Tsarist period cruisers had a mixed fate. The intervention forces captured many, and either handed them to the Whites or lost. I am particularly fond of the Prut, built in the USA for Turkey as Medjidieh. It struck a mine off Odessa and sunk before being raised and entering Russian service (1915); captured by German forces from the Soviets and returned to Turkey (1918), then remained in Turkish service. However, the most famous is the Aurora, which played a headline role in the Bolshevik seizure of power in October 1917, still in service in 1941, and is a museum ship today in St Petersburg.

The Soviet Navy only kept two of the many completed cruisers inherited from its Tsarist predecessors – Aurora and Komintern. However, they had the hulls of eight incomplete Tsarist Svetlana class vessels, ultimately completing three of them. They all served in WW2.

New Soviet designs included the Kirov class, a light cruiser heavily influenced by Italian ships. Six of these ships eventually entered service, although only four actively. Under the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact, the Soviet Union sought to acquire German military technology. The most significant single acquisition for the Soviet Union was the German heavy cruiser Lützow – initially renamed Petropavlovsk in Soviet service. However, the Germans dragged their feet, and it was only ready for use as a floating battery by 1941.

The modest Soviet pre-war cruiser force played a meaningful local role in the war in the Black Sea from 1941–43, using the seaward flank to good effect in a theatre of operations in which the Axis lacked significant surface vessels. However, they were quickly bottled up in the Baltic and reduced to floating gun batteries.

This book has plenty of illustrations and lovely colour plates. It describes both the ships and the operations they took part in. I have a couple of cruisers in my Soviet WW2 fleet, and this book might inspire me to expand it. I also included a Black Sea scenario in my wargamers guide to Turkey and the Second World War.

Wednesday 27 March 2024

The Young Montrose

 I have jumped ahead a few volumes in my chronological re-read of Nigel Tranter's novels to get to the two Montrose books as they fit my current wargame project. The first is The Young Montrose, which covers his early campaigns. I have the 1974 Coronet edition, which has a different cover from the current edition.

The Earl of Montrose, also known as James Graham, was a significant figure in the civil wars of the mid-17th century. His early career was marked by loyalty to the Scottish Covenanters, who opposed King Charles I's attempts to impose religious uniformity in Scotland. Montrose initially served in the Scottish Covenanting Army during the Bishops' Wars against England in the 1630s. However, he later switched sides due to political and personal grievances. He was crucial in rallying support for King Charles I in Scotland, leading royalist forces against the Covenanters during 1644–1645. His military successes earned him the title of Marquis of Montrose.

Tranter starts the story when Montrose returns from his grand tour of Europe and a period of study at Padua. He becomes a leading figure in the Covenanter movement, which turns into armed conflict. Montrose mainly fought in the North, a part of the Bishops' Wars that gets less attention than the actions on the border. However, he gradually falls out with the Covenanters when his great enemy, the Earl of Argyll, takes effective control of the government of Scotland. 

The book covers the early battles of the Civil War when Montrose became Charles' commander in Scotland. It includes several epic descriptions of the campaigns and his leadership in recruiting and deploying his army. The core elements were the Irish Brigade and his own Grahams, but his Highlanders tended to drift off after a victory. This is a great story and one of my favourite Tranter books. 

I have finished the core elements of my 15mm Montrose army, mainly Essex, but I have some more Peter Pig to add.

Irish Brigade

Gordon Horse

Strathbogie and other Pike and Shot units.

I even got them onto the tabletop at the club last Sunday. They were victorious, probably because I did not command them!

Friday 22 March 2024

Russians and Ottomans on the Danube

 This week's gaming has involved a two-day multiplayer game using the Blucher rules in 15mm. Eight of us came together in Glasgow to play a scenario loosely based on Kutuzov's 1811 campaign. In my book, The Frontier Sea, I outline the war between the Russians and Ottomans from 1806-12. However, you can read more about this campaign in Alexander Mikaberidze's new biography of the Russian commander. We also used his translation of the official Russian history.

When Kutuzov arrived in Bucharest in April 1811, the Russian army consisted of four divisions plus Cossacks and the Danube Flotilla, totalling around 46,000 men. Several actions occurred during the year, and Kutuzov was constrained by Russia's need to keep one eye and resources on Napoleon's build-up for what became the 1812 campaign. Turkish numbers are largely guesswork, but the Russians estimate them to be around 75,000.

A typical action involved either the Russians or the Ottomans crossing the Danube, establishing a bridgehead, and then either side having to destroy or relieve the bridgehead. We played a generic scenario based on this. The somewhat narrow Danube is at the top, with an Ottoman garrison in the outer redoubts. Two Russian corps arrived on both flanks and three Ottoman 'corps' entered from the bottom. The reserve move rules in Blucher mean that the opening moves are fast, getting both armies quickly engaged. I was commanding Ali Pasha's 'corps' on the left, reinforced with a few units from the Kapikulu. 

The Ottomans managed to relieve the Bridgehead by the end of day one. The somewhat stronger Ottoman right flank was held up, but the army still had enough troops to secure the bridgehead. My defensive line was stretched, but it had repulsed the Russian attacks.

On day two, the Ottomans firmed up their bridgehead defences and counter-attacked the lost redoubts while the Russians tried to hold onto them.

There was a fierce fight on both flanks, but the Ottomans grabbed the redoubts back on the last move. The Janissaries' final charge was decisive. The Russians ran out of steam, and even with more moves, they would have struggled to rally and return.

It was a good game and the rules work well for big battles like this. The army lists for the Ottomans are not quite right. In particular, the Janissaries are encouraged to engage in a firefight in circumstances when a charge would have been more historically correct. The one classification for provincial infantry with conscript status feels wrong, too. However, in fairness, it is difficult to fit the Ottomans into Napoleonic rules.

Sunday 17 March 2024

Scottish Covenanters and Irish Confederates

 My library pick this month was David Stevenson's book Scottish Covenanters and Irish Confederates, first published in 1981 (still in print) and relevant to my current project. David has written several books on this period, and another is on my reading pile. There are countless books on the English Civil War and more than a few on Montrose in Scotland, but relatively few on the Irish element of the War of the Three Kingdoms.

Scottish interest was focused on Ulster due to the plantation of Scots in the first couple of decades of the 17th century. In 1625, around 8,000 Scots in Ulster were capable of bearing arms. By 1638, this had increased to around 10,000, probably due to poor harvests in Scotland encouraging migration. These settlers maintained close links with Scotland, as did the earlier Irish Scots like the MacDonnells, whose links were with the islands and the western Highlands. 

When King Charles I sought support against the Scots who resisted his religious reforms, he looked to Ireland for military support. This was political folly, one of many that unfortunate monarch made. It damaged his position in Ireland and Scotland, pushing the powerful Campbell clan into the Covenanter cause. The attacks on Scotland first brought Alasdair MacColla into the story, who would play an important role later in the wars with Montrose.

Later Irish rebellions (1641) saw a Scottish army being sent to Ulster at the King's urging and paid for (sporadically) by the English parliament. Eight regiments (10,000 men), including 2,500 Highlanders, were initially prepared. MacColla fought for the rebels in this campaign, and the Battle of the Laney was the first occasion he used the tactic later known as the Highland charge - one volley, then a charge. There are special rules for this in the FK&P supplement The Celtic Fringe. MacColla raided Scotland well before joining Montrose, often in pursuit of this feud with the Campbells.

The book covers the campaigns in considerable detail, focusing on the New Scots army led by Major General Munro. His force consisted of Scots regiments, and troops raised locally, sometimes supplemented by English soldiers. A further complication was that the English commander, Ormond, was a king's man and was distrusted by the English Parliament. The story has many other interesting personalities, along with shifting allegiances. 

The Montrose campaigns are touched on, although not in any detail, other than the involvement of the Irish Brigade. While his campaigns were unsuccessful, they led to regiments being removed from England and some troops from Ulster. Munro's army was very weak at the conclusion of this period when Cromwell invaded Ireland. They also lost against the Irish under Owen Roe at the Battle of Benburb, in June 1646. However, even with just a few thousand troops, the Ulster-Scots hung on, forming the basis of today's community.

This is a complex story and a challenging read. However, it thoroughly examines the period for those who want more detail than the FK&P supplements offer.

I have been re-fighting scenarios from the Bishops' Wars with my new Covenanter army. They even won on their first table top outing. A very rare occurrence. Even though Razzy, who is Scottish, turned traitor and sat on the Scottish horse!